A Venusian God in the sphere of Mars

As I was saying last time, I have something of a hard time relating to God as Lover.

It seems to be the one aspect of Who God is that our modern Christian culture has become most fixed on, and I’m just not feeling it.

If what I’m hearing on Christian radio is anything to go by, it seems that the overwhelming majority of contemporary worship ties into this Divine Lover thing. From “and heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss” (which is so embarrassing to sing that they rewrote it as the barely better “like an unrestrained kiss”) to “Jesus I am so in love with You” to that dreadful “More like falling in love” that I recently felt compelled to deconstruct.

Apparently, though, it’s striking a chord with people, or it wouldn’t be so prevalent. Yet at best it leaves me a little cold.

My personal attachment to the ideals of knighthood can’t be the entire reason why I find it so problematic, surely? There are enough tales of chivalrous romance and courtly love that I have difficulty seeing that as the sole reason. Almost certainly it plays in, but I severely doubt it’s the whole explanation. What, then?

My troubled history with romance can’t be it, either. I know plenty of people who have love lives far more tempestuous than mine ever was who really seem to get into the imagery of God as Lover. And here am I in the sphere of Mars, struggling with the imagery of a Venusian God.

Intellectually I can acknowledge that the Bible does talk about God using the images of Bridegroom, Husband and Lover, but I don’t feel very comfortable with that imagery on a personal and emotional level. It feels… unnatural. Nearly blasphemous, sometimes. The relationship of Lover and Beloved is one of equals, something which our relationship with God is definitely not. Painting God so exclusively as Lover seems like trying to bring Him down to our level, or raising ourselves up to His. And the near-sexual imagery is just weird. Sloppy wet kisses and falling in love, breathy bedroom-voiced worship leaders and “passionate” lyrics. Ugh.

Like the images of Judge, Mighty Warrior, Prophet, Priest and King, it’s an imperfect metaphor. I understand this intellectually. And yet I have far less problem with the conceptual non sequiturs involved in these other Scriptural portrayals of God than I do with the whole Lover thing.

Am I just an emotional midget? Shrunken, stunted, unable to truly give or receive love?

You can ask my wife, but I don’t think so. I just don’t find the romantic imagery very helpful, or even all that Scriptural sometimes.

It’s not that I have a problem with Scriptural emphasis on the love of God, either; just our modern romantic imagery for it. The Song of Songs is in the Bible, but it’s not the whole thing.

Maybe it’s just that it’s become so prevalent. I do have a bloodyminded tendency to swing away from any extreme position I encounter in a desperate search for balance.  It was reading Richard Dawkins that turned me off of evolution, after all. But I’ve had this same problem for the last 12 years.

I returned from Central Asia, where the dominant theme of the new Church’s worship was “Jesus is risen; He’s alive; He’s beaten the power of the enemy” just in time for Matt Redman’s Intimacy to be released.

I wasn’t feeling it then and apparently I’m still out of step with the rest of the English-speaking church. But I just do not get this whole focus on intimacy and silly romance lyrics for what ought to be worship.  From the sphere of Mars, our modern Venusian image of God is more than a little uncomfortable.


When a Knight Won His Spurs

There’s something about the image of the mediæval knight that won’t let me go.

Since childhood the idea of knighthood has been powerfully attractive. The title of this piece is taken from one of the few decent school songs we used to sing in assembly:

When a knight won his spurs in the stories of old

He was gentle and brave, he was gallant and bold

With a shield on his arm and a lance in his hand

For God and for valour he rode through the land

The song went on from there to paint life as a knightly enterprise; a fight “‘gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed”.

Unlike some of the things we sang, this one spoke to me on a deep level. I already had a mind of valiant last stands, death-or-glory charges and mediævalist romanticism, and this fed right into it, so much so that I can still remember the words to this day.

I liked the idea of chess at least partly because one of the pieces was called a knight. But when I actually started to play I quickly became frustrated by how difficult the knights were for my child brain to use effectively.

Even in my love of sci-fi, the idea of knighthood persisted. One of the reasons the Jedi were and are so cool was that they were Jedi Knights, dedicated to the knightly ideals of justice, might in the service of right, and the defence of the weak.

One of my ambitions to this day is to own a broadsword. (Ideally I’d like to have this before my daughters start dating, so that I can sit by my front door sharpening the thing when the boys come to call. I realise that a shotgun is probably more effective as a weapon, but a broadsword has style.) As I said, there’s something about the imagery of knighthood that won’t let me go.

In fact, the ideals of knighthood and Mediæval chivalry form the core of my conception of masculinity. To be a real man is to take on something of the virtue of a knight.

Chivalry has garnered something of a bad reputation in modern times. Associated first with simple politeness, it then became something that men displayed towards women – opening doors, being courteous, treating women with respect. But then it began to be perceived as condescension, tied into the whole “weaker sex” thing. All I can say about women being the weaker sex is that anyone who believes that has obviously never been around the process of childbirth, quite aside from the wonderful strong examples of womanhood in society, history and Scripture.

I’d like to return chivalry to its roots, and hopefully go some way towards rehabilitating it as an ideal.

Chivalry and knighthood go hand in hand. The root word for chivalry is the French word chevalierie, meaning “knighthood”. Chivalry, then, was the complex of behaviours and attitudes expected of the true knight.

It all started out as a system for determining who could fairly attack whom.

Attacking a peasant or someone from the common classes was beneath the dignity of a proper knight, because peasants couldn’t spend their lives training for war nor afford the protective gear of knights, and it was and is wrong for the strong to prey on the weak. It was unfair to attack someone who was inherently less able than you. If they attacked you, you could defend yourself, but you should never attack someone weaker. Knighthood is thus the opposite of bullying.

Admittedly, in purely historical terms, this rule was almost certainly honoured more in the breach than the observance, but archetypal roles are defined by their ideals, not their failures.

Building on the radical notion that the strong should not prey on the weak, chivalry evolved into a complete code of behaviour, unifying the greatest deeds of valour and derring-do and the smallest acts of courtesy and politeness in a single system. For the true knight, no feat of courage was so great that it should not be attempted, and no courtesy was so small that it could be safely overstepped. The two were one. He was gentle and brave.

In this essence of knightly behaviour, then, the ideal is that you use your power on behalf of those who cannot protect themselves. Like the ideal of proper policing, the knight was the upholder of justice and the law, the defender of the innocent, the protector of the defenceless. In the Mediæval world, this meant women and children, but the principle is of wider application. It’s just as wrong for the wealthy to use their economic muscle to prey on the poor, just as antithetical to the ideal of knighthood for preachers or teachers to exploit those entrusted to their care. It’s wrong for the bully to use his strength to cow and overpower those weaker than he (or she; bullying is not restricted by gender any more than knightly behaviour is).

Chivalry shouldn’t be a condescension, though it can devolve into one. It’s all about how you use your strength. Might in the service of right. You show every courtesy right down to the smallest because that exhibits a proper respect for other people. You do not shrink from the hardest acts of courage because that’s what courage is about. Gallantry, boldness, courage in the face of fear, doing what’s right no matter the personal cost.

It’s a high ideal, and it’s one that I still hold to this day as the core of my concept of manhood. Gentle and brave, gallant and bold. Knightly.

The knightly virtues of courage, faith, justice, reverence, courtesy, integrity and honour have a personal resonance that few other things do. Even though I’m fully aware of just how far from the original conception the modern honour is, it’s still one of my secret dreams to do something meriting a knighthood one day. It may be foolishness, but it’s meaningful foolishness. At least, it’s meaningful to me.

By an amusing coincidence, my wife’s American high school used a knight as their school badge. However, their conception of knighthood was totally wrong. The school team were the “Blue Raiders”; this is the antithesis of proper knighthood. When you say “Blue Raider”, I think Picts or Celts, or some kind of evil Smurf (apologies, L. D. Bell High School). Apart from the evil Smurf, it can be a good and strong identity for a sports team – powerful, agrressive and proactive – but a knight is the wrong image. Raiders are predators in human form. Knights are the guys that defend you from raiders.

With the knightly ideal forming one of the cornerstones of my sense of identity, it’s probably no wonder I struggle with the portrayal of God in Lover terms by a lot of modern worship music. There’s little place for a God who is Lover in my sense of knighthood. As a man who thinks of themselves as a knight, I can serve my King, fight injustice at the orders of my Commander, worship the Lord as Light and Truth, follow Him on pilgrimage as my Leader. I can grow like Him as Son, I can even know Him as the Word and the Truth. I can give my life in His cause, and if necessary, by His grace make an end worthy of a true martyr of God. But there’s no good place for responding to Him as Lover and Bridegroom.

And the weird thing (as far as modern worship would have you believe) is that I don’t feel any sense of incompleteness about it.

I know He loves me. But the important thing is that He’s my King and He loves me.

For better or for worse, I think of myself in chivalric terms. I may have the body of a 21st-Century nerd, but I have the soul of a knight from the High Middle Ages.

So to see my children playing knights yesterday was a source of great joy for me. I have successfully reproduced myself. Tremble, O world.

A line in the sand

I was exposed to the Disney channel for the first time over the weekend.

(Yes, you are supposed to read that in the same sense as “I was exposed to measles over the weekend”. I will explain).

I’d somehow managed to avoid ever consciously viewing the Disney channel before this. Neither my wife nor I watch enough TV for cable to be a worthwhile proposition in terms of cost/benefit analysis, so actually it’s not quite as much of an achievement as it sounds. So my entire concept of the Disney corporation had been hitherto shaped by its films.

They’re relatively harmless fare. Sure, there’s that wretched princess hierarchy in which the more vapid and helpless you are, the higher up in the princess pantheon you rank. This is why the vapid and senseless Cinderella and Ariel appear on more merchandise than the relatively strong and capable Mulan and Jasmine. And there’s the whole mythology of Love At First Sight, in which you can somehow know that the two of you are Meant To Be from a single chance meeting without getting to know the person at all. And yeah, there’s the whole parental disrespect complex that goes along with it, in which Father Always Knows Zilch and parental boundaries are always an unreasonable imposition.

But I can handle that. Between their mother and myself and most of our friends, they are getting some pretty decent counterbalancing role-models.

However, I was shocked and dismayed by what I saw on the Disney TV channel.

I have no clue what the show was, but apparently they were doing a marathon of it. We had taken my daughter to the hospital to deal with a broken arm, and while we were in the holding pen some nice individual put the TV on for her. I had no way of knowing the true ugly nature of what was coming on, nor if changing the channel would result in something better or worse, nor even if another option was even possible. My daughter was in that blithe state of “my eyes are open but I’m barely here”, and turning the TV off altogether was sure to result in a bored little girl. I could probably have changed the channel, so it’s partly my fault.

But if my daughter never sees that show again it’ll be too soon.

The programme followed the dubious adventures of four misfit teenagers, so it was probably aimed at an audience quite a bit older than my six-year-old, but that doesn’t really change the objectionable nature of it. It would have been just as awful for teen viewing.

The most obvious problem was the continual belittling, denigration and disrespect. I think that in over two hours of this horror I heard maybe five interpersonal exchanges that weren’t insults or belittling. But apparently it was ok, because there was a laugh track. See? It’s humorous to tell people they are worthless.

The one that sticks in my mind was “I can’t believe I took advice from you – and it was good!” Ok, that’s actually pretty funny – unless you’re on the receiving end. But if you hear that directed at you, there’s no way of taking it other than “You are a complete cretin and the fact that anything good could come out of your mouth beggars belief”.

This is not ok, and it’s not funny. I was on the receiving end of this sort of crap enough as a child that I’ll be damned if I’ll let my kids go through it, or even worse, dish it out.

I’m not worried about good-natured teasing. Everyone should be able to develop a skin thick enough to handle the occasional good-natured ribbing. But this went way beyond that, and was anything but good-natured. The comments were witty, I’ll give Disney their due. But they were cutting, degrading, belittling, barbed and poisonous.

This kind of wit we don’t need. Sticks and stones only break bones, but names will rip your heart out.

Apparently there’s a line in the sand here. You do not get to teach my kids that putting someone down or belittling them is funny.

The other main problem that disturbed me was the subliminal suggestion that unless you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, you’re worthless as a person.

I’m not a parent of teenagers yet, but I get the impression that this may be an accurate (within the bounds of comedic exaggeration) rendering of the typical teen mindset. But that doesn’t make it right. If you believe that you need a boyfriend or girlfriend to be a complete human being, you aren’t ready for one. First find out who you are without one, then we’ll talk.

Anyway, I have issues with this idea. My six-year-old is already obsessed with the idea of getting married and being a mother. At least she connects those two things, but I don’t need that fed yet. And I certainly don’t need her buying into the idea that she needs some male relationship in order to be validated as a human being. She’s a clever, sweet-natured, talented and strong little girl. I will not stand for you telling her that whatever she is is nothing unless she can attract a boy.

Disney is in a very powerful position. Our kids’ little hearts have been moulded by the excellent storytelling on which the corporation has built its reputation. As testament to the power of their storytelling, it’s difficult to conceive of any Cinderella other than the Disney version. To see this arrant crap vended by the Disney corporation is shocking.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be. Maybe it’s been like this all along and I’ve just been too blind or ignorant to notice.

I’m usually the last person to be up in arms. I generally figure that kids are a lot more resilient than we sometimes give them credit for. There weren’t a lot of “you can’t watch this; you can’t read that” rules that I remember butting up against as a child; I always figured to have about the same attitude with my own kids. But apparently even I have lines.Things like this are not right and not necessary.

Hurtful, belittling words and denigrating, dismissive attitudes have no place being portrayed as comedy. It’s not funny. Really.

This is the line. You will not cross this line.

So no, children. If this is what’s on, we will not be getting cable any time soon.

Dulce et Decorum Est

For me, Memorial Day (this Monday, for the benefit of my non-American readers) is one of the more familiar and “normal” of American public holidays. A day to remember those who made the final sacrifice in the defence of our freedoms.

It’s honourable and right that we should do this.

We have something similar, but it’s on the 11th of November, and you don’t get a day off from work. We call it Remembrance Day, but it’s in essence much the same idea.

The expression is rather different, though, or at least, it appears so to me. Remembrance Day is solemn, reflective, sombre. The laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph. The wearing of poppies in memory of blood shed on the poppy fields of Flanders and in a million other conflicts since. A minute’s reflective silence. The old words of remembrance:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.

By comparison, Memorial Day is a party. A day off work, and the traditional beginning of the summer period. Flags and parades. Marching bands. Salutes to living veterans and our heroes in the armed forces.

It can be a little disconcerting.

Part of it is just the natural and normal difference between our countries. Americans are very good at throwing national parties. Brits tend to be pretty good at dignified public events. We are seeing what we ought to expect.

But it got me thinking about what else it might reveal, and particularly about differences in our attitudes to war and the military.

Now, I can speak for neither America as a whole nor all of Britain, but from my observation there’s a case to be made.

Even some of our historically greatest generals have made some pretty morose comments about the supposed glory of war. My particular favourite is from Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, defeater of Napoleon, and a man with whom I share a birthday: “Next to a battle lost, there’s nothing half so melancholy as a battle won”. People die. Good people. It’s such a waste.

When I was growing up in Britain, we studied World War I poetry in English Literature class. Practically speaking, this is because it’s relatively easy to interpret and thus to teach. I guess it’s a good way to introduce poetry to small minds, but the net effect is that any sense of glory in military heroism is forcibly ground out of you. You are invited to mock the naiveté of Rupert Brooke, who managed to maintain a sense of love for his country, unlike the properly melancholic and cynical Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

In contrast to the cynic Owen, Americans, by and large, don’t believe that Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is the lie he claimed it was. At least in Texas, the military have a far higher profile than they do in the part of Britain I grew up in, and gereral approval of military service is sky-high and publically demonstrative. I don’t think I can go a week at any time of year without someone on the radio advertising some kind of special deal for veterans and active military personnel or their families, or some other special event saluting Our Proud Military Service-Members.

If it’s a little alien, in some ways it’s more healthy than the knee-jerk rejection of any sense of honour in military service that Owen and Sassoon tried to engender via my school classroom.

As a child, I mouthed the right cynical words, because that was what all the cool intellectually astute people were doing. But my heart wasn’t in it. Deep down, I believed that Wilfred Owen was wrong.

Not that war was an intrinsically glorious business, or that any particular war was necessarily just or even justifiable, but that despite the tyrant’s plea of “necessity”, there were sometimes real necessities that meant that someone needed to put their life on the line for the sake of the country we love. That there can be virtue in military service, that a hero is a hero because they put their life at risk for the sake of others, and that neither the justifiability of the overall cause nor the competence (or lack thereof) of the commanding generals in any way disparage the honourable service of those who put their lives on the line and who make the final sacrifice.

My high school friends would probably look at me like I was a Martian. It would be ironically apt; Mars was after all the god of battle and warfare. I kept my mouth shut at school, but I’ve actually always felt more kinship with Mars than Venus, metaphorically speaking.

On the other hand, the American practice of Memorial Day seems sometimes to be a form of glorification of war for its own sake. The deep-seated “my country, right or wrong” patriotism of the enchanted. I may be reading it wrong; in fact, as a foreigner from a country who approaches the whole thing from a diametrically opposite angle, it would be difficult for me to get it right. But certainly the United States is a lot more demonstrative and public about loving their military than the United Kingdom. It’s like you’re automatically assumed to be a model of honour and moral rectitude as an active servicemember, whereas among the people I hung out with as a teen, it was almost the opposite. You were assumed to be a violence-loving thug, particularly if you were in the Army.

While America may be in need of a little disillusionment over the glory of war, in many ways I find the way they have made peace with Mars to be better than the alternative. To honour the sacrifice of those who have laid down their lives so that we can enjoy the freedoms we cherish is right and noble.

The ancients were right, after all. It is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country.

Teleport vs Time Travel vs Invisibility: Implications

I don’t usually do these daily prompt challenges, but this one caught my eye.  Your local geek habitat electronics store has started selling time machines, invisibility helmets and teleportation doors.  You have enough money for one, but which one?

It got me started on thinking about some of the implications for my Christian faith.

A helmet of invisibility would, at a stroke, pull the rug out from under the simplistic materialist argument that if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.  Potentially a helpful (un)visual aid for talking about the spiritual.  Then again, it rather ties in to the Islamic idea of the jinn rather than standard Christian doctrine of angels and demons.  The jinn are more or less just like us, personality-wise, except non-corporeal.  Angels and demons are moral and immoral beings respectively.

So perhaps not quite so useful.  Also, the temptation to dishonesty would be immense.  Theft, spying, public immorality and gossip are just the beginning.  You’d need to sell those things with a “hold harmless” agreement.

Time travel would allow us to prove or disprove the contentions of so many churches that “the early Church did thus-and-so”.  Whenever anyone says this, you need to read it as code for “We do thus-and-so, and this is our justification”.  It would also be superb for Bible scholarship, though potentially embarrassing if we’ve been getting the wrong end of the stick for generations.  We’d have the opportunity to go back and ask Paul exactly what he meant by “because of the angels” in that controversial passage on head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:10).  What the situations were that prompted this or that comment in the Epistles.  The historicity or otherwise of the Deluge, Abraham, even the Exodus.  Better still, we could go back and actually meet Jesus.  Be an eyewitness of the crucifiction and resurrection.

It would be amazing.  Still, we would almost certainly get a shock.  It would test and stretch our faith to discover, for example, that Paul didn’t match our image of him.  And as a witness to the crucifiction, you’d need a strong stomach.

It’s easy to sanitise the past.  But some of the past really was brutal, and in all of it you need to be aware that they really did think differently on any number of points.

Which brings me to the teleportation door.

The implications for global missions are unparalleled.  (Still, so are the implications for larceny.  Open a door into the vault at the bank…  It’s another device that would need proper ethical screens in any commercially-available variant.)  Nowhere is unreachable.  No more worries about plane tickets or hiking up into the mountains of Bongo Bongo.  Even visas might become a thing of the past – how is a nation going to regulate who lives there when there are teleporters available?

Of course, it would have its down side, even for missions.  It would be too easy.  No need for cultural adjustment when you can commute to the field.  Why bother?  And if we don’t adjust our thinking and cultural expectations to more closely resemble those we are going to, we will naturally communicate a foreign Christianity that panders to foreign priorities and addresses foreign felt needs.

So I think that on reflection, I’ll just keep the money, thanks.  Though if pushed to choose, I think I might be able to make better missions use of a teleport door than some people.

Lessons from a blade of grass

This post is partially inspired by Levi Thetford‘s series of lessons from the birds and partly by Serious Thoughts’ recent post about her lawn.

Grass is amazing stuff.

I don’t know how much of the world’s native environments are grassland, but there are quite a lot of them. The American prairies, the African savannah, the Eurasian steppe… Not to mention the fact that almost all of our staple food crops are grasses.

I think there are things we can learn from grass.

1. Grass is small. Even bamboo, the largest member of the grass family, is a mere stick compared to a large oak tree. And most grasses make the bamboo look big. Its leaves are so thin and narrow that they’re practically indistinguishable from its stalk, and if you put a blade of grass down next to even a small oak tree, you’re unlikely to notice it.

This is the main lesson the Bible itself draws from grass. It’s easy to think we’re somebody pretty special, but who are we really? Compared to God, just grass. The first lesson of grass is “get over yourself”. It truly is not about you.

As a corollary to that, it’s easy to get super-impressed with other people, too. They look like great trees of bamboo next to our puny stems of field grass. But they’re still just grass. Maybe we need to redirect our attention and impressedness off of people and back to the Lord where it belongs. If He fills our vision, then we will neither be afraid of nor overly impressed with man.

2. Grass grows from the bottom. All plants have what is called a “growing tip”. If you’ve ever grown house plants, you’ll probably know that if you break or damage the central shoot it will adversely affect the growth of the whole plant. That’s because the central shoot is the growing tip. It is the main centre of growth for the entire plant, and without it, the plant cannot grow.

Unlike every other plant, the grass family have their growing tips right down at the bottom next to the roots. This means that when an animal such as a buffalo comes along and eats most of the body of the grass, it’s able to grow back, because the growing tip is unharmed.

What this means in functional terms is that grass is made for grazing. We’ll come to the implications of this in a minute, but right now let’s address the fact known to all gardeners, that if you mow it down, it grows right back.

Is there a lesson for us here concerning our times of adversity, to do the difficult thing of letting go of what we cling to and trusting the God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6) to enable us to grow back? Perhaps. Grass can face being cut down with equanimity. It’s designed to survive it.

Interestingly, Jesus uses the picture of wheat, a grass, to talk about His death and resurrection. “Unless a seed of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains only a single seed.” This is slightly different, in that it’s talking about a seed becoming a plant rather than a plant growing back, but it’s related. In light of the Resurrection, we can trust God enough to be able to say, with David, “I will see the goodness of God in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13).

3. Grass is designed to be grazed. As I said above, one of the implications of the location of the grasses’ growing tips is that they are literally made for grazing.

Many of the world’s large animals are grazers, as are quite a few smaller ones: Buffalo, cattle, sheep, llamas, white rhinoceros, elephants, rabbits, musk oxen, antelope, voles, pandas (bamboo is a grass), many seed-eating birds, reindeer, zebras and wildebeest. And that’s just a partial list. Since we’re told that God is the Provider of food for animals as well as people, we can learn lessons from grass about God’s provision.

It’s easy to get focused on the size of our needs. A family of five including three growing children takes a lot of feeding. And there are always situations arising that rock us back from where we thought we were. Cars die. Family members get sick. People get laid off. Needs happen.

Our need may be a mammoth asking, but even mammoths were grazers. God’s very nature is to provide, and sometimes this comes not in a great oak of provision but in a field of grass.

I’m hungry… You got any grass?

4. Grass shows up everywhere it can’t. This is something I find truly amazing about grass. It’s an expert at colonising all sorts of marginal habitats. High in the mountains? Yeah. Beach sand, with little fresh water and constant exposure to the drying effects of salt? No problem. Inside the Arctic Circle up where the sun doesn’t rise for weeks on end? Bring it on. In a minuscule crack in the concrete? Watch this.

Bet you thought concrete was tougher than grass, eh?

Grass not only grows in all of these situations, it teems. Working on the excavation end of construction, it never ceases to amaze me how we can strip away all of the topsoil to leave a thick, rock-hard Texas clay, bring an area to finished grade, then come back six months later to find it sprouting with grasses that no-one sowed.

Grass will grow in any tiny accumulation of dirt that gets lit and ocasionally gets dampened. It shows up in the most unlikely places. Wherever you put it, it’ll grow.

There are multiple lessons for us here. Tenacity. Perseverance. Willingness to try. Refusal to let other people’s failures dishearten us. But I think what I want to bring out of it is concerning evangelism.

It’s easy to look at people and think, “Oh, they’ll never become a Christian, because…” Fill in the blank. They’re a Muslim. They’re a hardcore atheist. They have been personally harmed by people claiming the name of Christ.

But grass shows up everywhere it can’t. You never know what chance remark is going to stick with someone. God is not going to let His word return to Him void.

Yeah, they may be a survivor of pastoral abuse. They may be a Muslim, with all of the misconceptions about what Christians believe that many of them have. They may be a self-proclaimed enemy of Christianity and of Christ. But they are not unreachable. We may need to think a little more carefully about how we approach them so that we are listened to rather than rejected, but grass shows up everywhere it can’t. Look at the Apostle Paul. Before he met Christ he was the 1st Century equivalent of the leader of the Taliban. If anyone was unreachable, it was the chief persecutor of the faith.

5. Grass doesn’t usually grow by itself. It’s really unusual to find just a single stalk of grass. Usually, it grows all together. It clumps, aggregates, teems. Where one grass is, there’s usually a multitude.

Not that you get a single species monoculture either, or at least, not outside of a crop field. Grass grows together with other plants, in amongst each other in a thoroughly mixed way. This makes the grass ecosystem stronger, less vulnerable to diseases and pests.

Grass doesn’t naturally grow in fields of just grass

The lessons I want to draw from this are the twin lessons of fellowship and presence in the world.

We need both. I’ve seen followers of Christ try to go it alone without considering themselves part of a church, and it doesn’t normally work. Grass is designed to be together. Like a meadow, each individual plant supports its neighbours, and we truly are stronger together.

But the church isn’t designed to be an exclusive club either. Jesus didn’t pray that we would be taken out of the world, or even isolated from it (John 17:15). Just as it’s unhealthy for a meadow to be all one species of grass, so it’s unhealthy for Christians to all clump together in our Godly ghetto and refuse to have anything to do with anyone who thinks differently. We may be, as the bumper sticker proclaims, “not of this world”, but we are still in it, and we have a job to do here. It’s time we remembered that.

I could probably go on. As I alluded, there are other lessons one could also draw from the simple blade of grass. But grass is small, so perhaps I should not try to create some huge systematic teaching from it. I might get big-headed, which is the antithesis of grass.

Thunderbirds Are Go: Heroism in Thunderbirds and Rescue Heroes

For my birthday recently, my dad bought me the technical manual from one of my favourite childhood TV programmes: Thunderbirds.

Most people in the US won’t be familiar with this iconic piece of 1960s British television, unless it’s via the 2004 film remake, but it’s fairly similar in concept to the Rescue Heroes TV show my kids watch (which is a spinoff of the Fisher-Price toy line of the same name).

Thumbing through the pages of my book in an unashamed nostalgia trip, I’ve been struck by both the similarities, and more importantly the differences, between the two shows, particularly in the area of what heroism is about.

Both shows follow the adventures of an international team of heroes who serve as a last-ditch emergency response team who can save people where no-one else can reach. For Rescue Heroes, this organisation is known as the “Global Response Team” (or more popularly as the “Rescue Heroes”; in Thunderbirds, “International Rescue” (the “Thunderbirds” are the amazing machines and vehicles they use to perform their rescue duties). Both are set in a futuristic world, though Rescue Heroes is a lot closer to the present day. Both teams of heroes utilise advanced technology to perform their amazing rescue adventure feats. This is far more obviously the case in Thunderbirds, but no less true of Rescue Heroes: where would they be without their Rescue Jet or all the other gadgetry they use?

But it’s the differences I find most informative.

There are the obvious differences in format and intended audience. Rescue Heroes is a cartoon based on a series of children’s action figures. Thunderbirds was intended for a whole family audience accessible and enjoyable by both children and adults, and was filmed using Gerry Anderson’s iconic mix of live-action model shots and marionette puppetry. Sometimes you could clearly see the strings, but no-one cared because the stories were engaging and this was the 1960s: virtually the Dawn of Time as far as special effects went.

These differences create a vast divergence of look, particularly where the main characters are concerned, by virtue of the constraints of their origin, but I find the differences oddly symbolic.

The Rescue Heroes, given their origin as action figures, have huge feet and gigantically muscular upper bodies with tiny heads. The first part of this is in reality a way to make sure the action figures stand up easily; I can sympathise, remembering the fine balance needed to stand up some of my childhood Star Wars figures in anything like a realistic pose. The second part of it is to emphasise their qualities as macho men of action. The female characters aren’t anything like so broad-shouldered and muscular, but neither boys nor girls are generally thrilled with a female action figure built like a cross between King Kong and Popeye the Sailor.

The men of International Rescue (we’ll get into the issue of diversity in a minute) were marionette puppets, and thus had disproportionately large heads in order to help accommodate their internal workings. Their bodies, by comparison, were smaller and more sticklike. It wasn’t that they weren’t strong; it was that physical strength played second fiddle to their expertise in piloting their specialised rescue vehicles. With advanced machines to do most of the heavy lifting, they needed to be smart much more than they needed to be physically strong and fit.

Rescue Heroes is all about a group of people who have the extensive training and physical fitness to do hard physical jobs (rescuing people). By contrast, Thunderbirds was, in a sense, all about the vehicles. The crew weren’t the Thunderbirds, except by extension; the Thunderbirds were the five major vehicles they operated. Thunderbird 1 was the reconnaissance and situation assessment jet, Thunderbird 2 the heavy transport, Thunderbird 3 the space rocket, Thunderbird 4 the submarine and Thunderbird 5 the orbital monitoring station. Even many of the minor vehicles had names: the Mole, the Firefly, the Thunderizer. By contrast, most of the Rescue Heroes’ vehicles don’t even have proper names. Jake Justice’s “Justice Cycle” is about as flamboyant as it gets.

All this makes for a very different kind of heroism. Besides the courage common to both bands of heroes, in Rescue Heroes, it takes raw physical power and the training to make the most of it to make a hero. They aren’t stupid, but intelligence is not their prime qualification for their role, rather, physical fitness and training. In Thunderbirds, it’s far less about strength and physical training and far more about high technology and the skill and delicate touch to operate it at peak utility. Perhaps this is why I’m far less focused on the raw physicality of AMerican machismo (I don’t hunt, fish, do sports or shoot big guns for fun). Even in my favourite TV programmes as a child, it was about brains, not brawn.

Another obvious difference is that Rescue Heroes has a far more diverse cast. As ought to be expected in a modern children’s TV programme, men and women serve on equal footing, and there are a diversity of races represented. The team leader Billy Blazes (one of the annoying features of the show, and a legacy of its origins as a toy line, is the nomenclative cheesiness. Billy Blazes is a fireman. Jake Justice is a police officer. Ariel Flier is a pilot. Roger Houston commands their version of Thunderbird 5) may be a white male, but his effective second-in-command is a woman (Wendy Waters). The usual main point-of-view character is the relative newbie: climber Rocky Canyon, a young black man. Ariel is Hispanic as well as a woman, and in the rotating cast of second-stringers there are Brits and Australians and probably Japanese and others, too. The deliberate internationalsm of the main cast is not something you get very often in America, and it’s one of the reasons I put up with its cheesy names.

By contrast, Thunderbirds is something of a product of its age. When it was made, Britain was overwhelmingly mono-ethnic; it was only in the 1960s that the first wave of non-white immigrants (from Jamaica at the time) began to reach our shores. At the time, then, Britain was a very white world, and Thunderbirds reflects that. There are a few interesting highlights, though, given the much more white, male-dominated culture. The heroes are a family of one father and his 5 sons (according to the in-story explanation it was their mother’s death in a tragic accident that led Jeff Tracy to create International Rescue in the first place). Given that the market for a TV show featuring a black family at that time was vanishingly small, the fact that the main characters were all brothers does tend to skew the race statistics. Kyrano and his daughter Tin Tin were token non-whites, from somewhere Southeast Asian and exotic. Even among the regulars, Thunderbirds was never exclusively white, though it’s probably one of the reasons it won’t ever get remade as a modern TV programme.

In terms of female characters, Thunderbirds fared marginally better. Yes, the five main characters were men (the Tracy brothers Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John), but among the supporting characters were two strong female characters, Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and Tin Tin. Lady Penelope gave the appearance of a jet-setting aristocratic socialite, but in reality was a kind of female James Bond without the messy sex life. Tin Tin was shyer and more traditionally demure, but was also portrayed as an expert pilot and lover of “dangerous” (as they were often considered) sports like skiing and rock-climbing. Not too shabby, given the age of the show and how far society has moved on since its debut.

It ties in interestingly with the question of what makes a hero, though. The Rescue Heroes are able to do their job because they are highly trained. You see glimpses of their training, and hear them gripe about how ridiculously tough their training is. International Rescue are heroes because they have access to some highly advanced rescue equipment and have a bucketload of courage and moral sense. In both worlds, anyone can be a hero, but what does it take to make you one?

The highly advanced technology of Thunderbirds leads to probably the most fascinating difference between the two shows: public profile. In-story, the Rescue Heroes are known and receive public recognition, whereas International Rescue are secret and go to great lengths to keep it that way.

The in-story reason for this secrecy was that the Thunderbirds’ technology was so advanced that villainous interests were after it for destructive purposes. To safeguard the moral use of the technology, the Thunderbirds’ base was disguised and the identities of the crewmembers were a closely-guarded secret. It is their moral sense that makes them heroes, because of this need to stop their rescue technology from falling into the wrong hands.

Though they did not wear masks, they did wear a uniform, partaking of the facelessness which uniforms help to give people.

The secrecy led to some wonderful model shot sequences: the elaborate modes by which the brothers would enter their machines, sliding down disguised chutes and riding couches down long shafts, and to the amazing launch sequences themselves, including the swimming pool sliding aside for Thunderbird 1 to launch from beneath.

Utterly impractical in real life, of course, but we willingly suspended disbelief. Like superheroes, they had secret identities pretending to be idle rich boys while saving the world.

By comparison, the Rescue Heroes are publically known. Selected from global rescue organisations by virtue of their vast individual skills, the world knows their names. People say things like “But you’re a Rescue Hero; you’re not supposed to…” Fill in the blank.

They don’t make a big deal over it, but they are known celebrities. People invite them to speak because of their status. They are publically acclaimed. You can almost imagine paparazzi dogging their steps in their off hours.

It’s a very different concept of what’s involved in heroism from what I grew up with with Thunderbirds. With Rescue Heroes, the focus is on our response to heroism. The Rescue Heroes, and the emergency response personnel they are oversteroided versions of, regularly do things that deserve our gratitude, respect and adulation, and we ought to give it to them. Public acclaim is part of what makes them heroes, because a hero is someone you acclaim and look up to. It actually helps their mission, because people listen to them because of their status. The whole show is more than a bit sledgehammer on the issue of safety, so their “Hero” status gives them a platform to speak on safety and not being an idiot.

In Thunderbirds, the focus is more on being a hero. Not to seek acclaim. The important thing is the result: lives are saved and people are helped. In the Thunderbirds universe, public acclaim would hinder the mission, not help it. True heroism is able to do the job without need of headlines, adulation and name recognition.

With this as my baseline for what constitutes heroism, it’s no wonder I’m so averse to the whole modern “reality TV” thing. I grew up on Thunderbirds, in which people saved a busload of people and no-one knew their name, and now here’s Big Brother in which people become household names for being couch potatoes with personalities more grating than anyone else’s.  Or Duck Dynasty, in which people have become heroes for being opinionated rednecks. (But entertaining opinionated rednecks).

What did you do to earn this public adulation? Nothing. Meaningless celebrity, the pursuit of fame for its own sake.

What does it take to be a hero? According to Thunderbirds, the moral courage to do the deed without the recognition and adulation. Deeds make heroes, not public acclaim.

Interestingly, Scripture shows a little of both. In the Thunderbirds mould, we are encouraged to do our giving in secret and not to be like the Pharisees, about whom Jesus said that “everything they do is done for men to see” (Mt23:5). True heroes don’t need public kudos; they do what’s necessary because they are there and it needs doing.

But in the Rescue Heroes mould we are told with respect to the Proverbs 31 “woman of valour” to “Give her the reward she has earned, and let her deeds praise her at the city gate” (Pr31:31). True women (and men) of valour are worthy of praise. Failing to give honour to one who has earned it is categorically not right.

It’s an interesting difference in perspective, no?